COMMENTARY

The conservative urge to be a victim: Why right-wing victimhood is spreading so fast

Victimized Bully Syndrome: From Kyle Rittenhouse to Donald Trump, conservatives are obsessed with being the victim

By Sophia A. McClennen

Published December 27, 2021 10:52AM (EST)

Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump and Kyle Rittenhouse (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump and Kyle Rittenhouse (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In late November a new variant of COVID-19 was detected by researchers in Botswana and South Africa. Within days, the omicron variant had reached California, marking the first documented case in the United States. By the end of December, omicron had not only become the dominant strain in the U.S, but it had also rapidly spread to push daily case counts well above the recent delta surge.

One of the greatest risks of omicron is the high degree of breakthrough infections, where vaccinated individuals still contract the virus. While the vaccinated, especially those who are boosted, tend to have much milder symptoms, if any at all, they still have the capacity to spread the virus. In only a few weeks, omicron has ripped through the countrystressing hospital capacitycanceling flightsdisrupting holiday gatherings, and, most importantly, threatening lives. According to Johns Hopkins University data, between Dec. 1 and Christmas, over 39,000 Americans died of the virus

By all accounts, the principal reason why omicron is causing such havoc in the United States is our low rate of vaccination. The United States, at slightly over 61 percent full vaccination, is among the lowest of the developed world. Cuba has over 84 percent fully vaccinated. Even Brazil, under anti-vaxxer President Jair Bolsonaro has almost 67 percent fully vaccinated. Bolsonaro, like Trump, has been skeptical of the threats of COVID from the start. Yet, he took Trumpian irrationality to a whole new level, claiming a year ago that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine "could turn people into crocodiles or bearded ladies" — and even his country is more vaccinated than the United States.

RELATED: Biden beware: GOP sees opportunity in new COVID variant

While there remains much to be learned about omicron and its consequences to public health, one thing is clear: The only reason why the nation is at such extreme public health risk is because the GOP weaponized the pandemic for political gain, convincing their supporters to distrust science and resist any policy, no matter how reasonable, if it came from a Democrat.

We've spent time analyzing the head-scratching right-wing ploy of sowing distrust in vaccines within the GOP constituency, a move which has literally killed off supporters and occasionally GOP leaders and pundits as well. But what we haven't done is recognize that the right-wing response to the pandemic is part of a larger political practice: Victimized Bully Syndrome.


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Some of you will be familiar with DARVO, an acronym for deny, attack and reverse victim and offender. DARVO describes the behavior of psychological abusers when they are being held accountable for their behavior. Donald Trump and his supporters clearly exhibit DARVO habits. Rather than accept blame for anything they do, they turn around and accuse those blaming them of creating the problem. Victimized Bully Syndrome (VBS), as I'm describing it, though, is slightly different from DARVO. With DARVO the abusive behavior comes first and DARVO only emerges if the attacker is asked to take responsibility. But with VBS the cries of being victims come first and are used to justify the underlying bullying behaviors. The bully under VBS is always already acting in self-defense.

Take this example: In a recent interview with Fox News, Dr. Mehmet Oz, candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania suggested that Americans had been victimized by President Biden's "one-size-fits-all" COVID-19 "rules that limit our freedom." According to Oz, U.S. citizens "want government to get out of their way to stop scaring them into submission."

If we set aside the sheer stupidity of a doctor suggesting that we need "as many different approaches as possible" to the pandemic, the critical takeaway is Oz's claim that Biden's policy is designed to victimize the public by scaring them, taking away their freedoms, and destroying their dignity. According to this logic, refusing to wear a mask, get vaccinated, or support public health policy is a valid defense, rather than bullying behavior that puts everyone in peril.

And lest there be any doubt, the right isn't just refusing to be vaccinated and to follow public health guidelines; in the face of the pandemic they have chosen to respond with aggressive bullying: engaging in violent confrontations over masking policies, attacking teachersthreatening school board membersviolently trolling scientists who speak to the media about COVID, and more. In fact, the violent far-right has exploded in the United States along with COVID-19.

Similar to the "sore winner syndrome" we saw emerge in the wake of former President Trump's election, VBS posits that those on the right are all the time being victimized by their government and that it makes perfect sense to respond aggressively.

It is this exact same logic that was the backdrop to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and we can see the same logic in play in right-wing responses to the House investigation into the attack. Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich claimed, "Democracy is under attack. However, not by the people who illegally entered the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, but instead by a committee whose members walk freely in its halls every day." That's right, according to Budowich the real threat to our democracy are those elected officials investigating what happened on January 6, not the actual people who attacked the Capitol. Those people were, according to this twisted logic, simply victims of election fraud.

It gets worse.


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The victim card was at the heart of the Kyle Rittenhouse case as well. Rittenhouse claimed he shot three men, two fatally, with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle in self-defense. In his testimony, Rittenhouse stated the only reason he even went to Kenosha, Wisconsin on the night of the shootings was to provide first aid to people in need. Rittenhouse, then, was no average vigilante. Instead, he was an already victimized one, prepared to claim self-defense if he attacked anyone. In a post-verdict statement issued by the victims' parents, they nail the dangers of Rittenhouse's VBS. The verdict, according to them, "sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.

VBS, then, isn't only being used by the right to foster a public health catastrophe, it is literally being used to justify armed murder and armed insurrection. As long as we allow the right to continue to describe themselves as victims who have been harmed, injured, threatened and therefore need to act aggressively in self-defense, the closer we get to civil war. In fact, a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll showed that 30 percent of Republicans believe that "true American patriots" might need to resort to violence in order to save the country. Nearly 40% still think the election was stolen.

So as long as the victimized bully syndrome pandemic is transmitted across the right-wing community, it will continue to surpass any threats to our nation from any new variants to the COVID-19 pandemic. Until we address the real threats to our nation, we not only won't stop COVID-19; we will allow the true risks to our health and the health of our democracy to continue to spread.


Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

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Anti-vaxxers Commentary Covid-19 Donald Trump Omicron Victimized Bully Syndrome